UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe
The old part of Guimaraes is not just another charming medieval town in Portugal. The historical centre is UNESCO listed and includes ruins of a cute castle which is considered to be the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. The views from up here stretch beyond the pretty old town with its charming narrow lanes, lovely old houses and picturesque squares with cafes. Luckily, the tourist flow seems to be concentrated on a few sections, leaving other parts to the local people of Guimaraes - and the few curious visitors. Here, life goes on as it has done for decades, even centuries, in such ways that elderly ladies still do their laundry in the public outdoor washing basins.
On a mountain peak outside Sintra stands the colourful Pena National Palace. It served as summer palace for the Portuguese royal family through the last centuries. The buildings you see today are mostly from the 19th-century, but the first construction on the site dates back to the Middle Ages. Pena Palace is part of the UNESCO listed Cultural Landscape of Sintra and stands out with its fairy tale style of oriental ornamentation, bright colours, wide gates and tall towers and spires. The surrounding wooded ground is grand with winding trails leading to magnificent view points. However, since the palace is perched on top of a mountain ridge facing the Atlantic Ocean, the panoramic views either stretch all the way to Lisbon - or equal likely, are obscured by dense fog from the clouds that are rolling over the ridge.
Right from the start, when you arrive in Porto, you get the feeling that the city has edge and character. Blue tiled churches and soaring towers rise over ramshackle houses with hanging clotheslines. Hilly streets and narrow alleyways wind their way through the UNESCO-listed historical centre. The fine university attracts a fair share of students, boosting the city with a youthful and arty vibe - and a large range of great cafes and bars. The tourists, however, seem to be spellbound by the picturesque riverfront right next to the iconic metal bridge, Ponte Luis I. A trip across Douro River will bring you to Vila Nova de Gaia, the main location for port wine cellars. A glass or two (or three or...) is of course inevitable.
The painted monasteries in northeastern Romania are a collection of churches that have their exterior painted in colourful cartoon-style frescoes. The walls feature biblical stories as well as portraits of saints, which were probably meant as education for the illiterate peasants and soldiers.
Humor monastery and its frescoes date back to the 16th century and is on now UNESCO's World Heritage List. The exterior frescoes depict the Last Judgement, Holy Virgin, St. George and the besiege of Constantinople. The interior is equally colourful. Even though it lies a long walk from Gura Humorului town, it is one of the most accessible of the painted monasteries.
The monastery at Voronet is another painted monastery reachable from Gura Humorului. It is considered one of the most beautiful ones due to the detailed frescoes depicting the Last Judgement, Genesis all the way from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel, the family tree of Jesus, along with stories of less famous saints. The monastery was built in the late 15th century, while the frescoes were added later in the 16th century. The vivid blue that was used has become so famous that it is now called Voronet blue among art historians and guidebook writers. Voronet monastery lies even further away from Gura Humorului than Humor monastery, and in the opposite direction. Voronet is also on UNESCO's Heritage List.
The Curonian Spit (Kurshskaya Kosa in Russian) is a nearly 100 km long, narrow, sand dune spit that separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. The southern section lies within Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and the northern within Lithuania. At its narrowest, the width is merely 400 m, making it possible to look across when standing on a high sand dune. The uniqueness of this fragile landscape of drifting sand dunes has made it an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in Kaliningrad Oblast. The National Park Kurshskaya Kosa makes up most of the spit, but there are several villages along the single road that goes the full length of the spit. The two main sights are The Dancing Forest, a collection of twisted trees, and the giant sand dunes at Efa. Not every local has been to these semi-famous spots, so beware when asking for direction or taking transport. The rest of the spit is mainly pine forest and long sandy beaches favoured by picknicking families during summer.
Lake Baikal is so large that it is hard to fully grasp its immensity: 636 km long, about 60 km wide and up to 1637 m deep, making it the deepest lake in the world. Any view from the shore makes it look more like sea than a confined body of water. The crystal clear fresh water is drinkable at most places and is home to some very yummy fish, like the omul. The railway from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude runs parallel to the shore for a while but to really experience the lake, go to Olkhon island or at least Listvyanka, a village on the shore 70 km from Irkutsk.
It's no secret that San Marino's old town is cute. It's an UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives more than 2 million visitors every year, mostly Italians. However, the narrow and winding lanes are lined with shops selling anything from the usual range of souvenirs to leather jackets and samurai swords. But the historic center, particularly the fine towers of Guaita and Cesta and the 360 degrees panoramic views are totally worth all the kitsch and neverending hordes of tourists. For a break from the mass, take a small hike along the mountain ridge between the towers.
© John Smith
Even if you don't have any interest in caves, a visit to the Škocjan Caves is still a must, just for its sheer size. Besides the usual collection of stalagmites and stalactites formations, it contains the largest known underground canyon which extends into several underground chambers. The largest, Martel's Chamber, measures 308 m in length and reaches up to 146 m above the underground flowing river, making it the largest chamber in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, this chamber is not included in any of the cave tours, but instead, you can descend along endless stairs and clinging footbridges into other big chambers like the Murmuring Cave (Šumeča jama) where the Reka River, which created the Škocjan Caves, flows at the bottom. Impressively, Reka River continues to flow underground for a total of thirty-four kilometres before it resurfaces near the Adriatic coast.
Alhambra is probably the most famous palace in Spain. It's sprawling over a hilltop and was built over several stages, when one ruler built upon what a previous ruler had left, but it was the Moorish emir of Granada who constructed the palace we know today in the 13th and 14th centuries. It's an exquisite example of Islamic architecture and the elaborated tile mosaics have made Alhambra famous among mathematicians. It can be proven mathematically that there only exist 17 different geometric patterns (wallpaper groups) and most of them (all?) are found in Alhambra. But you don't need to be a mathematician to enjoy the rich ornamented halls and lavish gardens of Alhambra - which of course is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.